Cubs

When do recruiting ratings become relevant?

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When do recruiting ratings become relevant?

It's the first week of June and a consensus of the leading recruiting services in the country indicates that Michigan, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Ohio State, Florida State, USC, Georgia, Auburn and Notre Dame have accumulated the top 10 classes in the nation for 2013.

Rivals and Scout both rate Michigan No. 1 while ESPN favors Alabama, but Rivals rated Alabama No. 1 and Michigan No. 7 before its most recent update. Georgia has made a huge leap to No. 2 by Rivals, No. 4 by Scout and No. 5 by ESPN. Texas remains No. 2 with Scout, No. 3 with Rivals and ESPN.

"Michigan has the top overall class in the nation as June begins," reported recruiting analyst Chris Nee of Rivals.com. "The Wolverines lead the country in total commitments. Among their 20 commitments, 14 are rated four-star prospects. Seven of those prospects are members of the Rivals 100, led by the nation's No. 2 pro-style quarterback, Shane Morris."

But is any of this relevant? High school football players can make as many oral commitments as they want--until they sign binding letters-of-intent on national signing day in February. So does it make sense to take any surveys that are published in June seriously?

"No," said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network, who has been evaluating high school talent for 33 years. "They are put together for people who go online, to attract people. The lists will be completely different on signing day because there are a lot more players still to commit.

"Why are they doing it now? Internet websites have to differentiate themselves from one another. It's something to do in the off-season. Recruiting is a 12-month-a-year occupation, so college fans are always wondering who is committing or who is recruiting whom or who is thinking of committing.

"But you an always expect certain schools to be on the list. And you can predict now that most of them will be on the list on signing day. It isn't brain surgery. You can always count on Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Notre Dame. And now Florida State is back. And LSU will be there at the end."

In fact, Rivals, ESPN and Scout rate only a few wild cards on their lists. Stanford, Auburn, Clemson, Texas A&M and Missouri aren't usually included among the top 10, but they have fielded winning teams in recent years and have been threatening to break into the elite group.

There isn't a secret to all of this. The best players want to play for the best programs in football or basketball. They want to play for coaches and programs that have reputations for grooming players for the next level, the NFL or NBA, and for playing for national championships.

Critics complain about recruiting analysts who evaluate athletes according to 2-star, 3-star, 4-star or 5-star ratings, but history reveals they are right more often than they are wrong. And how many 5-star athletes enroll at Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue or Minnesota?

The SEC is the most dominant football conference in the country and there are reasons why. Conference schools pay their head coaches and assistant coaches more than anyone else. And SEC schools annually recruit the best players and the best classes in the country.

Ratings are based on scholarship offers. It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out the formula that is used by most recruiting services. You don't see a 5-star player without a lot of offers from top 20 programs, do you? The offers come first, then the ratings.

"If the top 10 schools offer a kid, he is a 4-star or 5-star," Lemming said. "It comes down to offers, not ability. Look at the NFL draft. How many 5-star players are selected in the first round? Not many. Recruiting ratings are arbitrary, just one way to rate players."

Of Rivals.com's top 100 players in the class of 2013, Michigan and Texas have seven, USC and Ohio State have five, Alabama and Florida have four.

The nation's No. 1 player by most accounts, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, Georgia, is considering Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Alabama has commitments from three of the top 35 players--linebacker Reuben Foster (2) of Auburn, Alabama, running back Alter Tenpenny (20) of North Little Rock, Arkansas, and tight end O.J. Howard (35) of Antauga, Alabama.

Foster is the nation's top-rated linebacker and Howard is the nation's top-rated tight end. Texas has the nation's top-rated quarterback, Max Browne of Sammamish, Washington, and USC has the nation's top-ranked running back, Ty Isaac of Joliet Catholic.

Georgia has 19 commitments, including the nation's top-rated athlete, Derrick Henry, safety Tray Matthews and Brandon Kublanow of Marietta, Georgia, the nation's No. 2 center.

According to Rivals, Illinois' class of 2013 ranks No. 20 in the nation based on new coach Tim Beckman's ability to land quarterback Aaron Bailey of Bolingbrook, the only four-star prospect in the fold.

MLB Hot Stove: How Cubs are approaching the trade market this winter

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USA TODAY

MLB Hot Stove: How Cubs are approaching the trade market this winter

There's certainly a sense of urgency for the Cubs this winter, but they won't make moves just for the sake of shaking things up.

The Cubs always anticipated a window of contention for at least seven years and we're now on the backside of that estimate, with only three years until a bunch of core players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez all become free agents.

That doesn't necessarily mean the championship window is closing (a lot can happen in three years) but it does mean there is a strong desire from Theo Epstein's front office to try to capitalize and win another ring, especially after the 2018 season ended with only one playoff game.

"Everyone who's been around the team — from the players themselves to [the media] to the fans — we all know the takeaway from that season wasn't the positives," Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings in Southern California. "It wasn't the 95 wins. It wasn't how together the players managed to be (and that takes some doing — that was a really together, connected clubhouse). It wasn't the fine, outstanding individual seasons that many of our players enjoyed. It wasn't battling through a gauntlet of 42 games in 43 days.

"All those things are realities, but those aren't the takeaways from the season. The takeaways are that we got caught from behind and we had opportunities to put that division away and to make another postseason run and for myriad reasons, it didn't happen. So we damn well better be honest with ourselves about the reasons why it didn't happen and find ways to fix it, otherwise what the hell are we doing here?

"So yeah, we're not gonna sit here and celebrate 95 wins. We're gonna be pissed off about the way the season ended and it doesn't matter if I'm pissed off — our players are pissed off. And they know that they have an opportunity to be part of something special. They basically built it and helped build it. And we want to take full advantage of it.

"You can't take anything for granted in this game. You look up and it goes really fast — teams don't stay together forever and we need to find ways to take advantage of this great opportunity that we have. ... This has been a real winning group the last four years and that was a real low moment for us, 95 wins or not. And we don't want to live through that again."

Even reading those words on a screen, it's easy to feel Epstein's emotion and that sentiment undoubtedly rings true throughout ever corner of the fanbase.

The Cubs clearly want to fix their offense that faded down the stretch and they've already made a change with the hitting program, inserting Anthony Iapoce as hitting coach to replace Chili Davis. The pitching staff was handed a nice boost of consistency immediately after the World Series ended when the Cubs chose to pick up the options for Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana and Pedro Strop.

Given the current financial landscape, it's hard to see the Cubs landing either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in free agency.

Which leaves the trade market as the most likely way to retool the 2019 roster.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said last week he and the Cubs front office were spending more time talking to executives from other teams than agents of players on the open market.

The Cubs also aren't interested in making any knee-jerk reactions to a team that still found a way to 95 games despite injuries and ineffectiveness from the group's top players — Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Willson Contreras, etc.

"We do feel like our answers are internal," Hoyer said. "We need to focus on getting our players to maximize their potential. With that said, I think we're open to business and listening and [the trade market] will probably be our focus more than shopping at the top of the [free-agent] market."

The main areas of focus Epstein's front office is working to address this winter include the lineup and the bullpen. It's easy to see how a trade for an impact reliever can develop given the Cubs' plethora of young position players with potential.

The Cubs would love to add more established, consistent hitters to augment their lineup and help avoid the Jekyll and Hyde nature of hot streaks and slumps brought about by so many young players still finding their way in the big leagues.

But how would a hitter-for-hitter type of deal work out if the Cubs want to truly take their offense to another level?

"There's lots of different ways to do it," Epstein said. "You can trade up the service time clock. You can trade backwards for more years of control. You can trade for an established guy. You can trade for somebody you think is ready to break out. There's no one way to do it. You can trade two comparable players with different shapes if you think it benefits you."

The last idea is particularly intriguing as the Cubs have plenty of hitters in the same high-strikeout/slugging mold.

Epstein and the Cubs teased a potential offseason of trades last winter and wound up retaining all of their young hitters.

But that theory didn't translate to on-field results, as the Cubs led baseball with 40 games of scoring 1 or 0 runs (including Game 163 and the Wild-Card contest). Couple that with the fact the season was over before the sun came up on Oct. 3 and it's safe to say the organization is approaching this winter differently.

"We're gonna be open-minded about trades and we still are," Epstein said. "We may make many trades. We may make a couple small trades. We may make no trades. What we're definitely going to do is hold ourselves to a higher standard with how we perform, how we execute.

"The job is not just accumulating talent. The job is winning baseball games. We have to get our players to perform and we have to be at least one game better than we were last year."

When it comes to Harper, Machado sweepstakes, can White Sox compete with team that plans to spend 'stupid'?

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When it comes to Harper, Machado sweepstakes, can White Sox compete with team that plans to spend 'stupid'?

The White Sox sure seem willing to spend and spend big this offseason if the right opportunity comes along. They're reportedly interested in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the two biggest names on this winter's free-agent market.

But other teams are interested in those guys, too. And at least one other team is being more vocal about its willingness to shell out big bucks — making no bones about the fact it's even willing to spend "stupid."

That was the word used by Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton, who told USA Today's Bob Nightengale: "We're going into this expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little stupid about it."

That's a bit of a joke, of course — he added, "we just prefer not to be completely stupid" — but it shows how pricey this winter's bidding wars are going to get.

The White Sox have a ton of financial flexibility thanks to their rebuilding effort, but they're not alone. The Phillies are right there with them in terms of long-term financial commitments. Throw in the fact they're further along in their rebuilding process than the White Sox, and it makes them a prime candidate to hand out one of the biggest contracts in baseball history.

The Phillies — who Nightengale wrote just last week seem like a lock to land Harper — spent time in first place in 2018 and have an exciting roster of young players that already makes them a contender heading into 2019. Add Harper or Machado to that mix, and you're looking at a team that could win multiple championships starting in 2019.

The White Sox don't have that, and it seems to remain their biggest challenge in convincing one of the best players in baseball to sign up. They have a very bright future to pitch, but it's a planned future, not the demonstrable win-now roster of teams like the Phillies.

What could help to ease those concerns would be money and a whole lot of it. Obviously other teams are willing to spend, but few teams have the ability to spend and spend big that the White Sox have because of the ridiculously small amount of money they have committed past the 2019 season.

Rick Hahn has made a point that the White Sox have made a habit of shattering preconceived notions, doing the unexpected during this rebuilding process. But certainly no one expects him to do something "stupid."

In fact, Hahn's comments surrounding what deals the White Sox might or might not make this winter (or at any point in the last two years) seem to show the complete opposite of "stupid." His prerequisite for every potential move is that it's something that fits in with the team's long-term plans, given that there's still much player development to be done with the organization's stockpile of highly touted prospects. And signing either Harper or Machado, both 26 years old, would do that. Having one of the best players in baseball during their prime while the prospects come up and form the team around them? Yeah, that makes an awful lot of long-term sense.

But how much long-term sense does spending "stupid" make? Throwing more money than most of us can dream of at a player is a convincing argument in getting him to sign and make your team a heck of a lot better. But going overboard could handcuff what a team is able to do down the line. Harper and Machado are great players who can do a lot of things, but they're each just one piece of a 25-man roster. While the White Sox are expecting to have a lot of young, cheap players on those rosters of the future, there could be more than one "finishing piece" that's required to polish off this rebuilding effort. If you spend "stupid," are you able to afford those other pieces?

How stupid do you have to spend before the positive of acquiring a player is outweighed by the negative of not being able to acquire the next one?

Certainly the Phillies aren't going to hand Harper or Machado a blank check and bankrupt their long-term future either. They've got some smart folks over there, too. But it shows how financially competitive the bidding wars could be this winter — and what the cost could be of winning one of them.